Book 2: Path of Exile.
The scenery flicked by on the other side of the blurred window. Raindrops ran down the thick glass, leaving behind whimsical trails that were to linger for a moment and then be washed away by a fresh batch of droplets.
The first rain in twenty-eight days started half an hour ago and had shown no signs of stopping yet. 'A month passed already? Or should I say only a month passed?'
The train car was rocking monotonously from side to side. Together with the rain, they further submerged Orisa into a melancholic mood. She was half sleepy from the day’s activities and half saddened by the parting with Toatre. The girl decided to leave the Military and join some workshop in the central region of the continent, and that fact shook Orisa more than she wanted to admit.
They were not the besties, nor were Toatre a part of their small revolutionary circle. But she was always there, gracefully riding the waves of time. Somehow she ended in a parallel flow, too far away to take part in the trio's daily life, but close enough to talk, cuddle or solely admire her otherworldly elegance.
'Let's meet again, my beautiful little fairy,' she let out the last bitter thought and turned back to the window.
The night was governing over the world for a good few hours already, which meant it was around midnight now. The remaining time after her meeting flew by quickly, turning the day into a chaotic kaleidoscope of many small events.
Her negotiation with Drugan Dippo, her new Captain, was a sight to behold. While the first two conditions she made were both accepted without a hitch to her endless surprise, the last one turned into a showdown...
"Stop calling me sweetie, honey, pumpkin, and other shit," Orisa stated her final term with an even voice, not expecting any resistance.
"Excuse me?" She was baffled by Dippo's swift and firm reply.
"No, love, I'm calling my subordinates however I want. You, my sweet kitten, is in no position to make such demands," he dexterously jumped back on his feet and stared down at Orisa who was still sitting on the ground.
"Okay, then I'll pass," conversely, she settled on the grass and rested her head over her arms, looking at Dippo expectantly.
"Stop fucking with me, birdy, that's not going to work," he shook his pink hair theatrically. "You are failing not only yourself but your dear underlings, too. You lot won't fit into any other group, I swear."
"Everyone agreed to leave the Military with me," she smiled victoriously. "And they are my friends, thank you."
They glared daggers at each other, not wanting to lose a single step. The outcome was important first and foremost to set a precedent. If any of them would back away, it will be harder to hold one's ground in the future.
"You don't have balls to pull it off, sweet pea. Bringing ruin on yourself and your little army is what you truly want?"
"I honestly want at least some level of respect," she said before extending her right hand. "Compromise? You can say whatever you want unless there is someone else nearby."
Drugan Dippo gave the girl a curious look. He slowly began to see the reason behind the plan.
Orisa chuckled over her small victory and took a crystal out of her backpack. She bought one from Bavan of the Chargery to practice whenever she got a free moment. The exam she took the other day proved how beneficial her training was, so Orisa decided to press the practice even more.
She understood well the fact that the further she went with this training, the fewer results she would get, but one cannot be too prepared. Also, she had nothing better to do here without Internet, games, or even manga and novels to sink her time. To be honest, the lack of any amusements was the source of her progress. She merely had nothing better to do than train and study, what a pathetic reason, indeed.
Orisa focused momentarily on the crystal and began injecting her Mana inside the thing. The poor little piece of ore was full some twenty seconds later, so she started sucking it dry. That was her new portable training routine - fill the crystal then drain it out, rinse and repeat. After a few reruns, she no longer had to focus on the exercise. Instead, her mind went over the events of the day, which felt long and exhausting.
Her first condition for joining Dippo's Hounds was that she would bring her friends, too. They had a small discussion over Onuki's profile since Drugan had doubts about both her usefulness and willpower to work in the field. In the end, he waved it off as Orisa's responsibility for the girl with something like "you are digging her grave, but why should I care? We'll shape her useful, anyway."
Orisa then had a long discussion with her peers after they had met Drugan Dippo. Their reaction was... diverse.
"I should probably leave the Military," Onuki said, shivering. "Sweeping the streets at midnight is probably safer than being by this... person's side."
"Guys, please!" Orisa had to raise her voice. "I know I'm asking too much, but trust in me. That chap is freaking crazy, I know. But his conditions are otherwise perfect and there won't be any offer like that."
She felt a little guilty for not bringing Onuki onboard with their tiny secret society, but it was for the best for now. The more people they had shared their quest with, the more risk there would be.
Next was a farewell with Toatre which Orisa didn't want to relive again even inside her memory. A few more hours flew by unnoticed while she was preparing for her trip. And it was another point of guilt for her as she pondered again and again if she should bring at least Kanai and Iten with her. In the end, she decided against it, and both boys looked quite betrayed when she told them about her leave. But she wanted to have some quality time with Rita without a need to watch her words on various sensitive matters. Orisa also thought against imposing on her mentor and friend even more than she had to, so the boys were left behind. With that in mind, she left her partners, asking them to relay a short message to Tiana so that the girl would know about Orisa's temporary absence, too.
She managed to plead away not only the crystal she now was using for training but a book on modern engineering and crafting, too. It was Orisa's long-thought aim to learn more about the technology level of this world as well as various fields in which she could sink her efforts.
Orisa had already forgotten how freedom felt after spending almost one month in isolation of the training camp. But today, after signing the contract and getting her tag re-stamped, she was free to leave the walls. The one week period they had to choose and finalize their contracts now had turned into a short vacation because of the swift decision Orisa made with Dippo.
So she quickly packed all the necessities and her newly obtained loot and jumped on the back of a cart that was heading towards the town. Unlike that time with Youko, the ride now was slower and even bumpier, but she had to make do with just that, spending these few hours on the crystal and the book.
The sun was about to set when she made it to the train station, so Orisa ran to the ticket office but had to stop a few meters away from it, slapping her forehead. 'And where am I supposed to go? I know the arrival chamber's number, but what city is its base? Sad to be so dumb.'
"Yes?" a cashier greeted her bleakly, bored to death by his night shift.
"Um, hello. I, um, really sorry, but can you help me?" Orisa tried to sound as sheepishly as she could. "It is so stupid, but I forgot the station's name. I only know that the arrival chamber seventy-one is there."
"Your tag, please," the man said with a more awake expression. He looked at the piece of metal for a few seconds, apparently making sure that Orisa was no deserter.
Besides her bio, the tag now contained additional information about the training camp she came from and her occupation, the Hounds. One could assume that Orisa was now free to run away, but that was not true. When she left the camp, the guards at the exit warned her about one week limit for her absence, or else they'll report her as a deserter anyway.
"Give me a few minutes. On a side note, considering your specialization, it is recommended to own a map. Or so I'd assume."
"Oh, thank you! Do you have a map for sale?" Orisa's eyes shone brightly.
"Missy, we are a train station."
But the idea was worth remembering. 'I need a notepad for bright ideas, actually.'
She got the station’s name after a minute's wait and purchased a ticket for one mid. Luckily, the train was due in half an hour, and that time Orisa had spent on more reading.
For hours later, her eyelids started growing heavy, and she began to yawn. The long and eventful day finally caught up with Orisa, but she had to stay awake at least two more hours since her station was nearing. She stood up and began stretching exercises without releasing the crystal from her grip. It helped her wake up a little, so Orisa went back to reading.
The book was, in fact, another exercise to her. She was using her second Mana layer to make a short barely visible hand that was holding the book and turning its pages. Together with the crystal, they made her new concentration plus control plus Mana pool exercise.
The information she got from the book so far was quite disappointing. On the one hand, the world possessed rather advanced technologies like lifts, motorbikes, semi-automatic cannons, and such; they were all powered by the user's Mana or charged crystals. On the other hand, they were so rare due to their high cost that it was pointless to count on them in her daily life and their quest. Both their production was costly due to materials that were supposed to withstand constant Mana flows, and the maintenance seemed pricy as well. Orisa, however, kept reading, picking small ideas here and there; for now, they were of little use, but she could return to them later, in due time.
She walked through the vaguely familiar street two hours later and arrived at the INN where she woke up after their wolf endeavor at the start of her journey. The room she got was almost the same as the one she woke up on that day, and memories flooded her mind. She recalled how they sat in the room together with Rita, opening their souls to each other. A warm and fuzzy feeling spread inside.
The first half of the next day passed with Orisa walking around the streets and learning about the world, or at least about this particular town. It was much smaller than the one near her training camp; more village than a town, honestly. The main street with most of the activities spread over it, plus some branching paths here and there filled with nothing but residential buildings.
Most of the time until midday, Orisa spent inside shops or near stalls, learning prices and drooling from books. The bookstore made her willpower undergo an ultimate ordeal by presenting a variety of reasonably priced books on many compelling topics. None the less, both her finances and inventory space were limited, so Orisa had to restrict herself to the map of the continent and the book. Indeed, it was the Book, The one and only; she bought the promised and coveted Fantastic Waves and Where to Fight Them. Another purchase she made was a bunch of the simplest pocket watches for her and comrades to wear.
Around the noon Orisa decided to wrap things up and move towards the Arrival Chamber. The question of transportation rose again, so she went to poke the guards, this time being a little wary of them due to her past experience:
"Greetings, fellow guards, can you help me a little?"
"Can we see your tag?" After giving his partner a look, the first guard asked politely. Orisa expected that much and handed them the tag without further ado. "How can we help you?"
"I'm heading towards the Arrival Chamber to meet a friend but actually don't know of any common means of transportation. Could you advise me something relatively fast and cheap?"
"Before that, do you actually have a permit to enter?" The same man asked with a mildly surprised voice.
"A permit? What? Why..." Her mood instantly plummeted as the implication of his words hit her.
"The Tower is off-limits unless you are assigned there. You should have asked your friend to get you the permit," he added apologetically.
"I wanted to make a surprise for Rita..." Orisa hanged her head dejectedly.
"Rita? Do you mean Miss Stronoff?"
"Well, yes... Why?"
The guards exchanged long looks before the second man spoke:
"Our shift is over twenty minutes. We can give you a ride if you are okay with waiting before we confirm everything with Miss Stronoff."
"I am totally okay, thank you!" The sun shone brighter as a boulder fell off from her chest.
They were closing upon the Tower an hour later when Orisa saw a familiar trio on the horizon. As they slowed down to exchange greetings, the Captain noticed her:
"Isn't that our Bloody Hero? Heya there, missy. What's the deal?"
"Captain, sir, do you know the girl?" Spoke the guard with whom she was sharing a horse.
"'Course I know her, damn. She is one nice kid, Plim, I'm telling you!"
"Do you think we can let her inside without the permit?"
"Sure as hell, on my authority." He glanced at Orisa again. "Visiting Rita?"
"Yes, sir. And thank you for the gloves, too. I'm using them daily." She thanked him humbly bowing her head.
"Don't even mention small things, girl. We'll talk later," he said before sending his horse forward.
She wanted to greet other members of his trio, but they quickly followed their Captain only nodding to her in recognition.
Orisa had been waiting for two more hours before the door to the guest room she was now occupying opened, and a familiar red-headed figure appeared inside the doorframe.
"Orisa?!" The woman exclaimed.
Upon hearing her voice, Orisa's heart clutched from all the feelings that immediately surfaced, and she lunged onto Rita to place her into a tight embrace.
They froze in place and time, losing themselves in a heartwarming reunion. Both girls tried not to cry but lost that hopeless battle and gave up to emotions.
In her past life, Orisa was not on the emotional side of things, and she even pondered the question a few times during her stay in this world. She could only guess, but it was probably related to both her new female body and a younger age that tended to be more emotional, too.
But she didn't mind. More warmth spread across her body with each passing moment. Rita's embrace was soft and tender; she emitted a caring, motherly aura and even smelled nostalgically to Orisa's surprise.
"Oh, dear," Rita was at a loss of words and kept stroking Orisa's back.
"I know, I missed you too," she said, laughing softly.
They had spent a few more seconds like that before moving to sit on the sofa. Rita's smile was so caring and warm that Orisa almost lost it again. To fight another wave of tears of joy, she gripped Rita's hand tighter.
"I have so many things to tell you, but they could wait," she said after collecting her thoughts. Upon hearing that, Rita's expression turned serious as she asked in a concerned tone:
"Something bad happened to you?"
"Is it safe to talk here?" Orisa asked again, ignoring Rita's question.
"As safe as anywhere here. What happened, dear?"
"I have a question that I need you to answer honestly, without thinking a single moment. Promise me."
"Of course I'm always honest with you! What's going on, Orisa? How can I help you?" Rita's voice was a mix of worry and encouragement.
"Did you know that the time between the Waves is constantly decreasing?"